Mystery author # 5: Mary Roberts Rinehart

Here is my second classic mystery author. She wrote before, during and after the Golden Age of mystery fiction (the dates vary, but all agree that it covers the 1920s, 30s and 40s), and several of her books are still in print in spite of some rather harsh criticism of her work (to me an indicator that she probably had a formula that she overused). This, her second novel, is her most famous work and is considered to be one of her finest mysteries.

Title: The Circular Staircase
Year of publication: 1908
Availability: In print, copyright expired. Available for free online at Project Gutenberg
Pages: I read the e-book in Word, using the Geneva font. At 12 points it came to 201 pages. The Dover Mystery Classics paperback edition is 192 pages.
Setting and time: Eastern USA, contemporary to the writing
Type of mystery: Whodunit, country house mystery
Type of investigator: Amateur sleuth & a police detective
Some themes: Murder, fraud, embezzlement, superstition

The story (some may see SPOILERS):
When spinster Rachel Innes takes a house in the country for the summer, she expects to spend her time there in peace and quiet with her niece and nephew, Gertrude and Halsey. However, on the third night the son of the house owner breaks into the house and is shot dead by a mystery person. Halsey and Gertrude’s fiancé, Jack, had left the house in a hurry shortly before but there is only Gertrude’s word that they did. Naturally, suspicion falls on them, especially when Halsey fails to return home for some days and Jack is arrested on suspicion of having stolen security bonds from the bank he worked for and thus bankrupted the bank. After that, mystery keeps piling on top of mystery, until finally the case is solved with the co-operation of Rachel Innes and Detective Jamieson who is called in to investigate the murder.

Review: I encountered something unexpected here: an American country house mystery. I’m used to connecting the country house mystery to England and to authors like Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, perhaps because manors and country houses are such English phenomena. But of course there are country houses in the USA and no reason why there shouldn’t be American country house mysteries.
The storyteller heroine is an odd and entertaining character, contrary as an old hen, brave and scared by turns. There are many claustrophobic doings in the dark and deeds worthy of darkness, and endless twists. An experienced mystery reader will have puzzled together the solution to most of the mystery by mid-book, but it is still interesting to watch it unfold. The “had I but known” foreshadowing device which is used several times by the narrator (although never using those exact words) gets to be a bit annoying by the end, and as a matter of fact it is one of the things Rinehart has been most harshly criticised for.

Rating: A fine mystery in the best country house tradition. 4 stars.

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Rita Kennon said…
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